Sunday, December 16, 2007

Flashback: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, Gene Vacillates but Then Katzenbach Says the Tonkin Resolution Committed the Senate Irrevocably to the War and Nothing Can be Done About it: That Did It.

[Fifty plus years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren.]

Proceeding haltingly, two steps forward and one step back, in 1967 Gene McCarthy moved close to entering the presidential contest. He seemed to be relishing the interest he was drawing. On February 28 he told a student gathering at the University of Minnesota that the war “is morally unjustifiable” and publicly asked the president “to look what we are doing in Vietnam.” A few days later, on March 5, speaking in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina he made a strong proposal—to give up trying to negotiate a way out of Vietnam and begin “disengagement” which meant a first step to withdrawing.

When Johnson asked Gen. William Westmoreland to appear before Congress to give a report on Vietnam, McCarthy said it was a “dangerous practice” to have a military commander make a case which would not just involve military tactics but political matters, denouncing the move as “escalation of language, method and emotions.” In May he defended the right of dissent saying, “What we are really asking from the people of this country is heroic virtue—and no one has the right to ask for heroic virtue unless he has done everything to prevent conditions from developing in which that kind of virtue is called upon.” It was developed by Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB in concert with McCarthy.

But a very important session…as far as campaign money was concerned…was private and occurred on March 22, 1967 in the Manhattan apartment of 74-year=old Thomas Finletter. Finletter, the second secretary of the air force (named by Truman) was a Philadelphia mainline Brahmin, was a key contact for wealthy donors to Stevenson. Finletter had had a distinguished career in the state department and Pentagon and now practiced leisurely at the influential Courdert law firm. He was a leader of the New York “reform” movement and a key to a lot of liberal Democratic money. Purpose of the meeting was to get McCarthy to commit to run for president against Johnson. Russell Hemenway, head of the National Committee for an Effective Congress was there along with John Shea, an influential Wall Street lawyer.

McCarthy listened to their importuning of him to run. His press secretary, my friend, Art Michelson, was there that night and heard McCarthy say “No matter how much the Senate might do [in opposing Johnson’s plans on the war], Lyndon Johnson will not be moved unless someone challenges him for president. That is the only thing he will understand.” When asked whether Bobby Kennedy would run, Gene said he thought Kennedy would not: it was too great a risk and that Kennedy wanted to ensure a more united Democratic party later when he would make a move.

Everybody left Finletter’s apartment thinking Gene would run but two days later he had a change of heart. He had heard that Bobby was seriously interested in running and he wanted to show that he (Gene) was not looking at it just as a personal opportunity. He met with James Wechsler of “The New York Post” who had attended the earlier meeting with Schlesinger and Galbraith and told him that if Bobby ran he (Gene) would support him. Bobby was too sophisticated to believe this and told Wechsler not for publication that the very last person he would count on were he to make the decision to run would be Gene McCarthy. By June, 1967 Gene seemed to be drifting. Named chairman of the African affairs subcommittee of Foreign Relations his mind seemed taken up with his new responsibility—but he was also absorbed with the overheated climate of violence in U. S. urban ghettoes: Detroit, Newark, Washington.

McCarthy questioned whether the nation could afford “guns and butter,” saying, “we must set some priorities even though the secretary of defense recently was quoted as saying we are capable of fighting another war of the magnitude of Vietnam.’

He added this: “We can put off our pursuits of the supersonic transport and slow down our efforts to reach the moon, if need be. It will not go away and we now know what it is made of.” Jocular reference to the old children’s nursery rhyme that the moon is made of green cheese. It was about this time, summer of 1967. that I spent a goodt deal of time in Washington, sometimes a week at a stretch, lobbying on a host of items for Quaker and saw quite a great deal of Gene and his key staffers who were St. John’s men. During that time Gene got a lot of publicity serving on a special ethics committee and he shared a lot of his insights with me.

“Never Keep a Guy Who Stays in the Office After You Go Home.”

It was the time of the Tom Dodd ethics hearing. McCarthy was one of six senators named to an ethics panel to investigate the ethics of the senior Connecticut senator who was the father of the current senator and presidential candidate, Chris Dodd. The story of Tom Dodd was this. Brilliant lawyer, a top assistant to no fewer than five U.S. attorneys general. Then after World War II, sent as a top prosecutor to Nuremberg, Germany as a major assistant to Justice Robert Jackson who was trying Nazi criminals. When the trials were over they had convicted all but three of the defendants.

Dodd went to the U. S. House. Then when Democratic Sen. . Abe Ribicoff retired, his successor in the Senate. He was a father figure to his staff, a ruddy-faced old Irishman, severely moral in his family life, an economic liberal and, in fashion of U.S. Catholicism at the time, a Democrat who was also a red hot anti-Communist. Dodd developed a reputation for hard-work in the Senate and a staff that worked seemingly around the clock to perform constituent and other services for those back home. Two crack administrators were his top assistant (male) and Dodd’s personal secretary (female) who worked together like clockwork.

White-haired and upright at all times, Dodd was kind to his staff, though patriarchal and took a grandfatherly interest in their lives. He could be censorious when things weren’t done according to Hoyle. But he relied very heavily on his staff and who delegated much to them. Two who supervised the operation and seemingly worked around the clock to see that things went smoothly, earning Dodd the reputation of having one of the finest offices in Washington, were his administrative assistant and his personal secretary.

Stunningly, these two brought charges against him for double billing private corporations that (legally at that time, of course) had contracted for him to make speeches and receive honoraria and a host of things that showed a venal quality: penny ante cheating the government, that kind of thing. Why-- when Dodd regarded the administrative assistant and a kind of son and his secretary with such affection as a daughter? Here’s why.

Late one night Tom Dodd left the office and…as per usual…the two dedicated staffers volunteered to stay late to get out a report that was needed shortly. They were known to have put in an all-nighter if need be—the words with a vastly different meaning to them than to Dodd. Dodd was edified at their work habits. That night Dodd left the office, jumped in his car and drove halfway home to the Washington suburbs when he discovered he had forgotten his briefcase and turned back. When he returned to his office he found the administrative assistant and his secretary “in flagrante delicto” on his couch. Dodd raised the roof with them, demanded to know how long this had been going on, raged and threatened at one point to tell their spouses on them. They were contrite and tearful. He made them promise never to consort again. He thundered that if this happened one more time they’d be fired. In a rage he sent them home.

He took the role of the solemn but forgiving father and said he wouldn’t tell their spouses. In revenge, they conspired to get back at Dodd by going through his files and producing minor and major discrepancies to embarrass the old man. It was thought that Dodd had never told them to cover up but as previously loyal workers they had done it anyhow—just to avoid trouble for him and themselves. Now they publicized it and it produced a storm. But they had the goods on old Tom. The brouhaha led to the Senate appointing a special ethics panel to decide what to do about Tom. Everybody in the Senate felt queasy since they had staffers, presumably loyal, who were watching the procedure and many senators thought that if they would be unduly harsh on old Tom their malcontented staffers might pull the same ting on them. So going in, the idea on the panel was to go easy on old Tom.

Gene, Jerry Eller and I would dine quite a few nights in Washington while the ethics hearing were going on…on my company’s ticket (yes-yes-yes ethically okay then) at the posh Montpelier Room of the Madison Hotel. Eller was not famous for working hard in the office—nor was Gene. But they were a convivial pair, more like two father and son, with a great weakness for puns, stories of the old St. John’s (with which I would join in), friendly conspirators and cynics about the senatorial process.

“What you do when you want to choose an administrative assistant, is to be sure he has early habits—coming to work after you arrive and leaving before you do?” asked McCarthy drolly one night at the table. “In fact I will go so far as to say that you want to fire an administrative assistant who works in the office long after you go home. I don’t have to worry about this with old Jerry here.” Meaning that Dodd’s trouble was with two so-called workaholics who found themselves in love working late nights. Jerry was not one to work hard at all, although, like Gene, he was sort of a brilliant quick study. He was sort of like a Hollywood star, going to bed very late, getting up with a hangover, dawdling around the house with his wife and kids until mid-morning and coming to the office at about 10 a.m. and checking out before 4:30 p.m. Having Michelson in the office was worse—they usually formed a sardonic trio. Usually Gene had left before the hour or 4 and was over at the Carroll Arms coffee shop swapping yarns and martinis with one or more of The Little Sisters of the Media. As a result their office drew the reputation of being leisurely in the extreme but witty, fun-loving and the place to go to pick up one-liners ridiculing both parties and the Senate.

We would meet for dinner almost every night at the Montpelier Room during the ethics hearings for quite a stretch and usually share old stories from college, kidding about the professors we knew. I wondered but didn’t ask: why no Abigail? Well, Eller’s wife wasn’t there either.

How would Gene rule on the Dodd case? I thought he’d go easy on Dodd. Gene’s demeanor on human imperfections was usually so tolerant, I expected the political realist in him would entertain a spirit of forgiveness for old Tom.

At first this seemed to be the case. The question was whether Dodd would get a rebuke or slap on the wrist—or out-and-out censure. Censure would virtually end his career. At first it seemed Gene favored a mere rebuke. After all Dodd’s record was seemingly impeccable—and the cause of his downfall was his catching his administrative assistant and his personal secretary in adultery which led them to joint vindictiveness. And Senators almost always allowed their staffs to prepare their ethics statements and see that the books are straight. In addition these two worked on his campaign bookkeeping (which in those days was not forbidden). Everyone familiar with legislative files could easily concoct a case of favors being done which in returns triggered favors in return, mostly contributions. There is no lawmaker above this in either party.

At the first of several dinners, Gene seemed favorable to the idea of a rebuke.

But a self-appointed defender came before the ethics committee appeared--a lion of the Senate, Russell Long. While Long was the son of the late Huey Long, he had built a reputation in the Senate of overwhelming legislative majesty and expertise. Normally having Long on your side would be a good thing; Long was hugely respected and had great expertise on tax policy and power which he freely exerted as chairman of Senate Finance on which Gene also served (and with whom Gene agreed on the tax depletion allowance). Normally having Long in Dodd’s corner should have gotten Dodd off with a rebuke. Censure was the sentence that had been meted out to Joe McCarthy who had become toxic in the Senate to both sides. .

But coincident with Long’s appearance, Gene took the sudden position that Dodd deserved censure. Long made his case for Dodd in the committee with a brilliant display of pyrotechnics that brought tears and laughter to the committee and for a time it looked like Long would get Dodd off. After all, politicians are leery of assailing one of their number of having loose ethics, worrying that a payback might hit them. Playing fast and loose with campaign funds was, at that time, a game almost everybody did (except John Williams of Delaware). It was endemic in the system. Art Michelson, the indispensable press secretary to Gene seemed, after all, to have been paid by Howard Stein, CEO of the Dreyfus fund as either a corporate expenditure of a personal one without annotation—at least that’s what Michelson had hinted very broadly to me.

But just as the committee was ready to go into executive session to deliberate its verdict, Gene showed up in a grim mood. After ordering his regular martini (very dry), he said:

“If the committee fails to censure Dodd, I’ll resign and go public about the Senate’s lousy ethics.”

Wow. That was a stunner. I’ve often wondered why. I remember that first he was sorry for Dodd and rather sarcastic about the machinations of Dodd’s staffers that brought the matter to light. Then Long got involved in the defense. Was it that he finally decided that Dodd was corrupt, which hardly seemed to be the case compared to the standard of the Senate at that time. Or was it that Long, Hubert’s friend of friends, was defending Dodd? Or that Dodd allowed himself to be used by Lyndon Johnson when Gene opted out of the vice presidential pickings at the Atlantic City convention of 1964 where Gene ended up feeling humiliated (Dodd having agreed to fly to Washington with Hubert so that there would be a pair of senators from which LBJ would pick one)?

I told him that for what it was worth every single administrative assistant probably knew enough about funny financing of his boss to put him in disrepute—Eller included, which was not very diplomatic to say but they knew what I meant. I didn’t mention Michelson’s employment. Well I lost. Gene was determined to do what he wanted to do.

Gene went to the committee the next morning and did exactly that. After he said he’d resign from the ethics committee and blow the whistle, Dodd was a cooked goose. Everybody started thinking of how bad they would look—so they censured Tom Dodd. That night after he scored big headlines with his statement, I said that from now on if a senator or congressman would have any foreboding of sexual impropriety, he’d shut up. I asked Gene and Eller: what kind of morality is that?

They said: not relevant.

Not relevant? Anyhow that’s how it worked out. Dodd was censured and the censure carried through to the whole Senate. Dodd said he wouldn’t run again. Not long afterward Dodd had a major heart attack. As a private citizen he died shortly afterward of a second major attack.

Later, a staffer to Russell Long told me Long believed that two reasons caused Gene to do this. First that he—Long—had defended him since Long was a close friend and former classmate at Louisiana State of Hubert Humphrey. And second that Dodd went along on the flight with Hubert from Atlantic City to Washington, D.C. which produced the media play that Hubert benefited in.

We’ll never know.

Not long after that Gene got himself sort of embroiled in an ethics case—although not as spectacular as Dodd’s but it smacked of a Long payback and Eller said definitely it was. On the Finance committee, Russell Long, the chairman, tried to get an amendment passed to a bill that would require the feds to purchase drugs by their generic names rather than the more expensive brand names for the new Medicare program. Gene voted to table it—the vote seen by Long and others as a clear sop by McCarthy to the pharmaceutical lobby. Gene’s close political friend and one who went to St. John’s with me was his former legislative assistant, Larry Merthan, was the chief lobbyist for Pfizer, one of the largest drug manufacturers in the world. Gene’s point on the committee was that the matter of generic drugs should “be studied.” Why “studied” as the drugs would be the same and just cost far less? Long left the room for a long time (long enough to do some checking). After an initial vote favored tabling, he said--with an eye on Gene--that by God people who feel so strongly about ethics that they would crucify Tom Dodd might find that the sword is double-edged, indicating strongly Long would speak up about the role of the drug industry over some members—mentioning Pfizer by name.

At the next go round, Gene tossed in his cards and voted for generic, then voted to send the bill to the floor. His bluff was called. But the game wasn’t over yet. The bill passed the Senate with generic in; the House had generic out. And lo and behold the House-Senate conference agreed to keep generic out until the study favored by Gene was completed. Somebody was very active behind the scenes.

It took a long time but generic purchases by the government were approved, but Gene never explained his purpose on that initial vote.

Back to the War and Katzenbach is the Deciding Factor.

But all these things were in the background. After Gene returned to Washington from a speech in Minnesota where despite everything he had been quoted as saying “I am a reasonably good supporter of the administration by and large,” something happened to make that statement inoperative. Gene’s old enemy, Nicholas Katzenbach, under-secretary of state and former U. S. attorney general testified before Foreign Relations on August 17. 1967 that whether Congress had changed its mind on Vietnam was moot. By voting for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Congress had supplied “the functional equivalent” to a declaration of war, he said. In the midst of the testimony, McCarthy stalked from the room visibly angry. Later at dinner he told us the die was cast. I decided he meant that he would run for president.

What he told us he told to Ned Kenworthy of “The New York Times.” He said, “This is the wildest testimony I ever heard. There is no limit to what he says the president can do. There is only one thing to do—take it to the country.”

A short time later, Gene called Finletter and told him all systems were go. He would run and Finletter should start the money operation.

1 comment:

  1. It is fortunate that Tom Dodd did not live to hear of the peccadillos pulled by his son Chris with this buddy Teddy "The Swimmer" Kennedy, upon waitresses, e.g. "sandwiching" on the floor of restaurant private dining rooms, etc.

    Never underestimate the intelligence of the voters of Connecticut!